Why food prices will rise even with record procurement

india-wheat-2011-5-5-8-51-9Vivek Kaul

When the production of any commodity goes up, its price falls.
That’s Economics 101.
But economics is not physics. And what sounds true, may not be true at all.
Take the case of the report in The Times of India edition dated May 12, 2013 which points out “US agricultural department and…the Food and Agriculture Organisation(FAO) have predicted record global output of cereals…raising hopes of snapping the trend of worryingly rising food prices.”
The US department of agriculture expects the global production of wheat to rise by 6.9% to 701 million tonnes in 2013-2014 (i.e. the period between April 1, 2013 and March 31, 2014) from the previous year. The production of rice is expected to rise by 1.9% to 479 million tonnes.
This rise in production 
The Times of India feels will bring down cereal prices in particular and food prices in general. The cereal inflation was 4.62% in March 2012. But it had shot up to 18.36% in March 2013.
Will this inflation come down? Another reason in favour of increased production is the fact that the India Meteorological Department has said that the South West Monsoon will be normal this year. The South West Monsoon is very important for the production of rice given that half of India’s area under cultivation is still at the mercy of monsoons. Irrigation wherever its available is also dependent on rainfall.
While increase in production of a commodity does have an impact on its price, but there are other bigger factors at play in the Indian case. Every year the government of India sets a minimum support price for rice and wheat. At this price, it buys rice and wheat from farmers, through the Food Corporation of India(FCI) and other state government agencies.
This price is declared in advance in order to give the farmer an idea of what he is likely to get for his produce. While the idea behind MSP is noble but it has essentially become a tool of give-aways in the hands of politicians. The MSPs for both wheat and rice have been raised dramatically over the last few years.
In 2009-2010 (i.e. the period between April 1, 2009 and March 31, 2010), the MSP for rice paddy was Rs 1000 per quintal (i.e. 100 kilograms). This was increased to Rs 1250 per quintal in 2012-2013. For wheat this went up from Rs 1080 per quintal to Rs 1350 per quintal.
So MSPs have gone up dramatically over the last few years. This has resulted in more and more rice and wheat being produced and landing up with the FCI and other agencies which operate on its behalf. The way the current system works is that FCI is obligated to buy all the rice or wheat that the farmer wants to sell as long as a certain quality standard is met. This has led to a situation where farmers find it favourable to produce rice and wheat because they have a ready buyer for all their produce, at a price they know in advance.
Hence the stocks with the stock of rice and wheat with the government has gone up dramatically. At the beginning of March 1, 2013, the total rice and wheat stock stood at 62.8 million tonnes. Now compare this with the minimum buffer of 25 million tonnes that needs to be maintained. So the government is buying much more rice and wheat than it actually needs to maintain a buffer and distribute through its various social security programmes. As an article in the May 26, 2013, edition of Business Today points out “A few years of high minimum support price (MSP) – floor price at which government buys all the wheat and rice offered by farmers – has led to the massive procurements. This, however, has not been followed through with regular releases into the market.” So the prices of rice and wheat has gone up, as more of it lands up in the godowns of FCI and not in the open market. Or as Madan Sabnavis, Chief Economist at credit rating agency Credit Analysis & Research Ltd told 
Business Today “Excess procurement is leading to an artificial scarcity.”
This is something even the government agrees with. A December 2012, report brought out by the Commission for Agricultural Costs and Prices, which comes under the Ministry of Agriculture points out “Since 2006-07, the procurement levels for rice and wheat have increased manifold…Currently, piling stocks of wheat with FCI has led to an artificial shortage of wheat in the market in the face of a bumper crop. Wheat prices have gone up in domestic markets by almost 20 percent in the last three months alone (in the three months upto December 2012, when the CACP report was released), because of these huge stocks with the government that has left very little surplus in markets.”
The procurement of food grains increased from 34.3 million tonnes in 2006-2007 to 63.4 million tonnes in 2011-2012. Due to this the total stock of food grains in the central pool went up from 25.9 million tonnes as on June 1, 2007 to 82.4 million tonnes on June 1, 2012. The total stock of food grains that is held by the FCI, state governments and their agencies, is referred to as the central pool.
As on March 1, 2013, this number stood at 62.8 million tonnes. Analysts expect this to touch 100 million tonnes after the current procurement season gets over. FCI estimates put the carrying cost for this inventory comes at Rs 6.12 per kg. At 100 million tonnes, the cost works out to over Rs 60,000 crore.
And all this has happened because of high MSPs being set by the government. What is interesting is that the Comptroller and Auditor General (CAG) of India in a recent report titled “Performance Audit of Storage Management and Movement of Food Grains in Food Corporation of India (FCI)” questions the logic behind how the MSPs are being set.
The report was presented to the Parliament on May 7 ,2013. As the report points out “No specific norm was followed for fixing of the Minimum Support Price (MSP) over the cost of production. Resultantly, it was observed the margin of MSP fixed over the cost of production varied between 29 per cent and 66 per cent in case of wheat, and 14 per cent and 50 per cent in case of paddy during the period 2006-2007 to 2011-2012. Increase in MSP had a direct bearing on statutory charges levied on purchase of food grains by different State Government… All this resulted in rising of the acquisition cost of food grains.”
The high MSPs have led to another distortion. FCI majorly procures its rice and wheat from states like Punjab and Haryana. But over the last few years high MSPs have motivated various state governments to set up more and more procurement centres. A good example is Madhya Pradesh, which emerged as the second largest procurer of wheat last year by having set up more procurement centres over the years and by also offering a bonus to the farmers over and above the MSP. This year Bihar seems to have got into the act. As a recent editorial in the Business Standard points out “Bihar, only a marginally wheat surplus state, has this year set up more grain procurement centres than the major wheat-growing states of Punjab, Haryana and Uttar Pradesh put together.”
So the moral of the story is that both the central and state government are procuring more and more of the rice and wheat that is being produced, distorting the rice and wheat market totally. As V S Vyas an economist with the Prime Minister’s Economic Advisory Council told 
Business Today “Stock in the market is important, not the total stock.”
It is unlikely that the MSP are going to come down this year given that Lok Sabha elections are due next year and hence the Congress led UPA will continue to offer ‘boon-dongles’ to citizens of this country. And even though the global production of rice and wheat is likely to go up as suggested by 
The Times of India, there will be no relief for the Indian consumer.
The article originally appeared on www.firstpost.com on May 13, 2013
(Vivek Kaul is a writer. He tweets @kaul_vivek)